49-year-old Leon Shashi, a fisherman from Vaniyakudi village in Kanyakumari district, smelt the danger before he heard it. It was close to 6 am on Monday morning and a pungent odour swept into Leon's residence. Almost immediately, he felt his eyes and nose stinging. As he rushed out with his wife and two children, he noticed almost a hundred villagers running to safety while holding wet cloths to their nose.
"We all thought it was some sort of a gas leak and switched off our stoves and shut down the transformer," says Leon. "But the smell was unbearable and as we stood there, I could feel my skin starting to itch and burn. That is when we heard a disturbing sound emanating from the ice factory," he explains.
And while the villagers outside failed to comprehend what this meant, inside the 18-year-old Amali ice plant in Kanyakumari, a lone worker was struggling to fix a broken pipeline that carried potent Ammonia gas. Used as a refrigerant, Ammonia gas is fatal when concentrated, can cause skin burns and damage the windpipe and lungs when inhaled. And it was now burning its way through the air around the plant, affecting residents.
"My 60-year-old neighbour Vasantha Kumari inhaled the gas and collapsed within minutes," says Leon. "Her son, Soosai Michael had to rush her to a Government hospital in Nagercoil. I dropped my wife and children at a relative's house about one kilometre away and came back to investigate," he says.
But even as pandemonium descended upon the village, firefighters responded to the danger only an hour after the leak.
Did factory try to hide leak?
"The pipeline that connected the ammonia cylinder to a valve in the factory had developed a fissure at around 6 am," admits an officer involved in the operation. "But we were informed only at 7 am. There was only worker in the factory and those in charge were trying to fix the issue themselves, without involving any government officials. A cover up was underway and when all their efforts failed, they called the fire department," he adds.
According to the officer, by the time department members arrived at the spot, the gas had spread up to 50 feet and 28 firefighters including those deployed from neighbouring villages struggled to enter the premises of the building.
"This was new to us. We were wearing masks and protective gear but our skin, eyes, nose and throat were all burning as we attempted to enter. Just standing there was giving us splitting headaches," says the officer. "We then began to hose down the area in an effort to dilute the gas in the air. It took us close to two hours just to reach the pipeline," he adds.
And when they did, the damage to the pipeline was clear. A stop gap measure of welding had been adopted to an already existing crack but the pressure within had broken another part and firefighters couldn't get any closer.
"Finally we managed to close the main valve, to stop the gas supply," says the officer. "It took us three hours to finish this operation and could have been done sooner if we were informed. Even now our officers are recovering from the exposure to the chemicals on Monday," he adds.
According to villagers, a similar leak took place close to four years back but was controlled by the factory. The Amali ice plant is owned a 45-year-old man named Reslin who belongs to the Kodimunai village.
But when contacted, the factory dismissed allegations made by villagers and firefighters.
Factory owner arrested
"This is being said by the community because they are jealous of our owner's growth. He used to be a part of the community and sold lobsters but has grown immensely over the last two decades," says Das, a mariner who works with Amali. "The valve was not closed properly. That is all. The claims of a broken pipeline are all false," he adds.
However based on the complaint by the hospitalised woman's family, Kanyakumari police has arrested Reslin and booked him under sections, 284 ( Negligent conduct with respect to poisonous substance), 287 (Negligent conduct with respect to machinery), 336 (Act endangering life or personal safety of others) and 337 (causing hurt by act endangering life or personal safety of others).